Friday, September 12, 2014

A Witness on Wheels: General Assembly Misses the Mark

I wrote the following piece right after General Assembly this year, but left it unpublished for a few months to reflect on it.  Reading the UU World piece on "Fired Up: General Assembly Energized Unitarian Universalists with New Models of Ministry and Outreach" fired me up to finally publish it. 

At General Assembly this year, I was using a scooter. It’s not the first time I’ve been on wheels – I was using a wheel chair for a semester in college, due to broken bones. As for scooters, I’ve been using them there for the last several years, because it helps me with pain management. This year, newly diagnosed with various foot and ankle problems, it was more of a necessity than ever. As someone who is usually about on legs rather than wheels, every time I’ve been in this situation I’ve learned a lot. And I’m aware enough at this point to know there is still a lot more that I’m not aware of about how people on wheels experience the world.

This General Assembly was the most difficult one I’ve experienced in terms of accessibility. The problems included the facility, the planning, and even the theology. But one event stands out as the most painful for me because it went beyond facility and planning problems and became an event where the participation of other GA attendees made the situation worse and worse.

This year at GA, the big witness event was Providence’s “Waterfire.” The plan was for everyone to gather for worship, and then process to the Waterfire location, a couple of blocks away. I knew enough about how difficult the witness events on wheels can be to check in with the accessibility table, where they gave me a map of where was accessible and where was not, and told me the plan was for all the scooters and wheelchairs to exit worship first, directly behind Peter Morales and some other dignitaries and people on stage, and for everybody else to wait and let those on wheels go first. This sounded workable, so I decided to go.

At the “Dunk” – the Dunkin’ Donuts Center where worship was held – there were only two elevators that we had access to. While the lower level is at ground level, the main entrance is up a huge flight of stairs to the second level. With the dozens of scooters and wheelchairs in use at GA, this can cause quite a backlog when everyone tries to exit the lower level at once. We can stay on the upper level, but there’s a limited number of spots (I got the very last one for Sunday worship), and if you wish to participate in plenary (now called “General Session”), you need to go to the lower level to reach the microphones. After opening worship, they held everybody in for a few songs so the people on scooters and wheelchairs could exit first. Of course, some people had exited at the same time anyway, making the request moot, but then people were waiting for elevators for nearly an hour before the last ones were out. It was a nice gesture, but completely inadequate to the problem, to sing an extra few songs so that we could exit before the throng.

For the Waterfire event, therefore, they had planned another exit. We were to follow our President (along with our family or companions) out the zamboni entrance into the alley and then zip around to the front, which we did. That part went smoothly. I was about three scooters behind Pres. Morales, and the chaplains were keeping pace with me for a while, and then moved ahead and joined the people on foot at the front, as the scooters spread themselves out a bit, to get onto the single-file sidewalk, and give ourselves enough space between each scooter or wheelchair to see terrain and obstacles, and to stop if we needed to stop suddenly. The scooters have no breaks.

When we got to the front, some of the gathered UUs had filled up the sidewalk. We had to carve a path through, following President Morales, but the walkers who were escorting us called out for people to move to let us through, and most did. A few inserted themselves into the procession, taking up our spaces that let us see the uneven sidewalks and the curbs. We navigated through the crowd at the front of the Dunk, and got to the next curb. The crowd behind us started walking.

As we processed up the next block, dozens of UUs started walking around us toward the front of the procession. Our walking companions called out to them to tell them they were requested to let the scooters go first. Most ignored the calls to let us do so. As they would get in front of a set of scooters, they would start filling in the gap we were leaving so that we could see terrain and curbs. We got pushed farther and farther back.

On the next block, a steady stream of UUs started to pass me on the curb. We were held up by the crowd in front of us, having to stick to the sidewalk.  Sticking to the sidewalk, you can only go as fast as the person in front of you.  However, those who wanted to truck on by on the curb could do so easily and get up to the front. It’s much the same phenomenon of when a lane closes on the highway, and some cars have merged over and are going slow in the one lane that’s open, but other cars zip by on the shoulder, and then squeeze in the lane farther ahead.  I called out to some folks passing by to try to explain the situation, but was rebuffed or ignored. Admittedly, I may have sounded a bit frustrated by that point.

Why does it matter? Why should the scooters go first? First, it was an act of grace, an act of inclusion, a recognition that we’re often forced to the back of the line, the back of the bus. Second, it’s a necessity for us to have the space to see in front of us. In a crowd, that means you relegate us to the back, or you allow us to go first. The third reason has to do with getting us to a place where we can see the event, as I will get to shortly.

By the time we got to the Waterfire location, I was a full block behind Peter Morales and the chaplains,  despite staying dangerously close to the scooters in front of me. He held the crowd of UUs who had gotten ahead of us at the corner, while the scooters were all directed around to the ramp to get down to the water. The staff at the Waterfire location directed us over to a ramp that was full of UUs watching the water.

They had us wait for a few minutes, and at first were suggesting we park on the ramp. The woman who had been escorting us asked a fellow standing on the ramp railing videotaping if he could move for us. “No, I can’t,” he replied. Then we were told another woman had an idea of how to handle things. She escorted one scooter at a time down the ramp, and over to the area that had been roped off, presumably for us, full of standing people in Standing on the Side of Love t-shirts. She carved a spot out in the people for one scooter at a time, getting us each all the way up to the railing. And so I was carved out a spot by the railing, with clumps of UUs standing on each side of me, and could see absolutely nothing for quite a while, since with the nose of the scooter in front of me I was effectively a row behind, and seated, with people standing virtually in front of me.  I could see whatever happened directly in front, but no more. The women to my left and right, though, were gracious – more gracious than I, muttering under my breath – in helping me to eventually see when they understood the nature of the problem, and, of course, it was crowded and they wanted to see, as well. Another woman on a scooter told me later that she had one couple between her and the rail that refused to move to the left or the right, despite there being space to do so, and so she saw next to nothing.

It’s a different feeling of hopelessness for me being on a scooter in a crowd where you’re completely pinned in. On foot, you can always force your way out. On a scooter, I feel trapped, like I couldn’t get out if I wanted to. I remember feeling that way at the social witness event at Tent City at the Phoenix GA. But there, there was a feeling of such goodwill and generosity from my fellow UUs. Our bus chaplain, who is a friend of mine, stuck with me all night. She left her cases of water to distribute by me, and her backpack, so that she would know where they were, and I was her touchstone and she was mine for the evening.  When I needed to move around, the crowd helped. They lined a path and kept it clear. The UUs on duty made sure we were safe, and all was kept orderly. 

Waterfire was the opposite feeling. I felt isolated and abandoned in the midst of a crowd of people Standing on the Side of Love.

After the fires were all lit and some singing had happened, and the crowd thinned a little, it seemed like a good time to leave and try to explore some of the rest of the Waterfire event. My scooter got stuck on the cobblestones, and the friendly crowd of UUs did help me to get started and get out of the space. Trying to explore the rest of Waterfire, however, was a disaster on wheels, but I was on my own with my family and not with anyone from GA at that point – which was part of the problem. My little map was helpful, but getting anywhere on the wheels was nearly impossible. I accidentally took the sidewalk instead of the street at one point, and had to ask about a hundred people to move so I could get down it, as they were still watching from there down to the water. I forced my way miserably down to the love tent, my voice hoarse from asking people to get out of the way, found the tent and got a carnation, and tried to move beyond it to see what the tents beyond were. The crowd was so thick at that point that I couldn’t really maneuver at all, much less really see what was there. My family and I turned around in frustration and headed back to the convention center where I was let in to park my scooter for the night.

In the end, it just really wasn’t an accessible event. I got further than anyone else on wheels I spoke with did, and that wasn’t far, and didn’t encompass most all of the UU-sponsored spots. I think it would be more honest for the GA planners to say, “This big cornerstone event of GA just isn’t accessible,” and then for our gathered assembly to wrestle with the honest emotions of what it means to have a major part of GA that all of us don’t have access to. I think we could learn something from that exercise. What I’m hoping for the future is for the GA attendees to learn and understand why the scooters are being allowed to go first and why it’s not okay to just hop around us. I’m hoping for the GA Planning Committee to learn that choosing a location and events so inaccessible isn’t simply “a necessary trade-off,” it’s an act of oppression. And I’m hoping that for future GAs, we can show real improvement both through stronger planning and through educating our attendees further.

After GA, one of my colleagues posted on Facebook the question of whether we should change the name “Standing on the Side of Love,” because it’s not inclusive of those on wheels. People quickly responded that it’s a metaphor, not to be taken literally. I used to feel that way, too.  After this Standing on the Side of Love event, it felt like in Providence it was meant to be taken literally, after all. We can do better than this as a faith. We can do better than this for social witness. I’m hoping we will, and that I can feel included in "Standing on the Side of Love" again.